MANCHESTER, England – Manchester United will recognize that feeling, the evanescent satisfaction of a battle won far too late in the day to have any hope of turning the tide of the war, the curious and complex pride that comes from celebrating a victory that never ends. just underline how far you’ve fallen.
It has only been three years, after all, since United experienced much the same thing, roughly the same place, if not quite under the same circumstances. Manchester City were supposed to win the Premier League title this afternoon – the first in Pep Guardiola’s reign – at home against their longtime rival, neighbor and persecutor in the spring of 2018.
The Etihad stadium was crowded and noisy, relishing the prospect of the perfect scenario to win the championship, with United being asked to play the role of sacrificial victim first and then reluctant observer. What better way, after all, could there be to illustrate the change of power in Manchester, England and Europe, than for City to win the league when United were forced to watch?
United, that day, turned out to be reluctant guests. Guardiola’s side took a two-goal lead, then hesitated, a brief flash of old town, the one practiced in the art of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, bubbling to infect the new. United took advantage of it, bounced back and won.
It was clear and obvious at the time that this was just a postponement of City celebrations – even United manager José Mourinho praised Guardiola on his imminent post-game title win – rather than ‘a threatened cancellation. All concerned knew that City would be proclaimed champions, with ease, as soon as possible. But for United, the victory was a tonic, a solace, a shot through the arc, something to hold onto in the long night of the blue moon.
Sunday was not quite a carbon copy. The details were a little different to begin with. It’s much earlier in the season, on the one hand, and City are still a long way from having the championship sealed mathematically. The Etihad did not need to be silenced: like all other stadiums in Europe, it has been quiet for a year now, the noise and emotion of the supporters an increasingly distant and painful memory.
The effect, however, was about the same. United won a penalty in 38 seconds, Bruno Fernandes converted it in two minutes, and then Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side set about holding City at arm’s length. At the start of the second half, Luke Shaw doubled United’s lead. Anthony Martial could have done three, but the damage was done. For the day, at least.
The extent of the damage will in all likelihood not extend beyond this. The 21-game winning streak that preceded this result, City’s first loss since November, made the Premier League title a fatality. Guardiola’s side still hold an 11-point lead at the top of the table, with 10 games to go.
The loss should portend an almost unimaginable collapse to prevent Guardiola from winning a third championship in four years. United can, once again, claim parochial primacy, but that is not enough to change the map of the wider landscape of English football.
Days earlier, United had been flat and uninspired – and a bit lucky – to take a goalless draw at Crystal Palace. Solskjaer’s players had won only twice in the Premier League since January, their form of stuttering masked by the form of stuttering of, well, everyone, and in particular Liverpool’s seemingly bottomless incompetence. It’s unlikely to be a turned corner. For United, the derby victory was a welcome result, but nothing more, not really.
But that didn’t mean it was a trivial game. For City, it would certainly be worth stopping to reflect not only on the fact of the defeat, but its nature. His loss in that game in 2018 was sandwiched by two defeats to Liverpool in the Champions League, one complete, one narrow and unfortunate, but both enough to end the club’s hopes of winning their first European crown.
With the league title almost in hand now, this is where Guardiola’s attention will change in the weeks to come. There are also two domestic cups up for grabs, but it’s this Champions League trophy that Guardiola – and much of City’s hierarchy – craves more than any other, this trophy that they believe will complete the transformation. of the club as a true European aristocracy.
It has been difficult, over the past two months, to see who could actually stop City. Real Madrid and Barcelona are shadows of what they once were. Atlético Madrid is tiring, fast. Defending champions Bayern Munich have developed a curious habit of giving almost all of their opponents a two-goal lead. Paris Saint-Germain is plagued by inconsistency. No club have been as compelling this season as City; it is hardly daring to claim that they are currently, and despite their defeat, the best team in Europe.
All of these teams will therefore have welcomed United’s victory as proof that City are not invincible. They will have seen glimpses that despite all the resources Guardiola has access to and for all that he has expertly managed them through this compact and condensed campaign, City players are not immune to fatigue. . Kevin de Bruyne, in particular, seemed unable to influence this game the way he would have liked.
Rivals will have taken heart from the first 20 minutes or so, when City repeatedly played into trouble, unable to find their rhythm, or piece together United’s plan. And, most importantly, they will have noted how Solskjaer – an underrated tactician in games of this ilk – neutralized João Cancelo, the full-back who becomes a midfield playmaker and, in so doing, spins that iteration. of City.
Solskjaer’s antidote was simple, but without nerves. He ordered Marcus Rashford to play high and wide on United’s left, forcing Cancelo to make a choice: either get in midfield and leave room to exploit, or stay in his lane and defend the attack from his own team. He chose both, and neither: It was no surprise that United’s two goals came from his side.
Cancelo has been one of City’s great strengths this season. Its role was the innovation that re-energized the Guardiola system. On Sunday at the Etihad, Solskjaer turned him into what City has been missing for weeks and months: a weakness. It won’t make the slightest difference in the fate of the Premier League title race, of course. Most teams will neither have the staff nor the inclination to repeat the trick.
But for teams across Europe opposing Manchester City and a four-trophy sweep, it will be something more than a comfort, more than a tonic. For Guardiola, and for City, it’s a reminder and a warning, that their views are so high that a losing battle can cost the whole war.